The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?Just as last year, many cognitive folk sent in their answers, and I'll try to get to all of them here. Like last year, I may get a bit snarky. You've been warned. Since there are so many, I should probably get started. This is going to be long, so take a deep breath.
First there was the Copernican system dethroning the earth as the center of the cosmos.I have to admit that I think Ramachandran (whom you may remember from posts on the cognitive science of art) is right, in the sense that this idea, which we know is true, is going to receive a lot of resistance from the general public and religious figures when it becomes clear that it is central to so much of neuroscience and psychology. I also think it's dangerous because it's going to be used by some to make unwarranted claims about human nature. For example...
Second was the Darwinian revolution; the idea that far from being the climax of "intelligent design" we are merely neotonous apes that happen to be slightly cleverer than our cousins.
Third, the Freudian view that even though you claim to be "in charge" of your life, your behavior is in fact governed by a cauldron of drives and motives of which you are largely unconscious.
And fourth, the discovery of DNA and the genetic code with its implication (to quote James Watson) that "There are only molecules. Everything else is sociology".
To this list we can now add the fifth, the "neuroscience revolution" and its corollary pointed out by Crick Â the "astonishing hypothesis" Â that even our loftiest thoughts and aspirations are mere byproducts of neural activity. We are nothing but a pack of neurons.
David Buss (aka Rudyard Kipling):
This is followed by some stuff that really isn't worth copying and pasting, after which Buss ends with
When most people think of torturers, stalkers, robbers, rapists, and murderers, they imagine crazed drooling monsters with maniacal Charles Manson-like eyes. The calm normal-looking image starring back at you from the bathroom mirror reflects a truer representation. The dangerous idea is that all of us contain within our large brains adaptations whose functions are to commit despicable atrocities against our fellow humans Â atrocities most would label evil.
On reflection, the dangerous idea may not be that murder historically has been advantageous to the reproductive success of killers; nor that we all house homicidal circuits within our brains; nor even that all of us are lineal descendants of ancestors who murdered. The danger comes from people who refuse to recognize that there are dark sides of human nature that cannot be wished away by attributing them to the modern ills of culture, poverty, pathology, or exposure to media violence. The danger comes from failing to gaze into the mirror and come to grips the capacity for evil in all of us.Once again, I have to agree with this answerer. His idea is dangerous, but not for the reasons that he says it is. When someone who is seen as an authority on psychology, and the role of evolution in modern human psychology in particular, says that because people have killed for a long time (at least since Genghis Khan), often for selfish reasons, it's clear that murder is hard-wired into our brain, but offers up no evidence to support this, because he has none, and is unlikely to obtain any, that's dangerous.
I am interested in the... position that mental life has a purely material basis. The dangerous idea, then, is that Cartesian dualism is false. If what you mean by "soul" is something immaterial and immortal, something that exists independently of the brain, then souls do not exist. This is old hat for most psychologists and philosophers, the stuff of introductory lectures. But the rejection of the immaterial soul is unintuitive, unpopular, and, for some people, downright repulsive.
So Bloom, Ramachandran, and I all agree that this is a dangerous idea. Bloom even discusses the dangerousness of this idea relative to evolution, writing:
The rejection of souls is more dangerous than the idea that kept us so occupied in 2005 Â evolution by natural selection. The battle between evolution and creationism is important for many reasons; it is where science takes a stand against superstition. But, like the origin of the universe, the origin of the species is an issue of great intellectual importance and little practical relevance. If everyone were to become a sophisticated Darwinian, our everyday lives would change very little. In contrast, the widespread rejection of the soul would have profound moral and legal consequences. It would also require people to rethink what happens when they die, and give up the idea (held by about 90% of Americans) that their souls will survive the death of their bodies and ascend to heaven. It is hard to get more dangerous than that.Scott Atran:
In case you're wondering just why that's a dangerous idea, Atran gives us a good reason:
Ever since Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, scientists and secularly-minded scholars have been predicting the ultimate demise of religion. But, if anything, religious fervor is increasing across the world, including in the United States, the world's most economically powerful and scientifically advanced society. An underlying reason is that science treats humans and intentions only as incidental elements in the universe, whereas for religion they are central. Science is not particularly well-suited to deal with people's existential anxieties, including death, deception, sudden catastrophe, loneliness or longing for love or justice. It cannot tell us what we ought to do, only what we can do. Religion thrives because it addresses people's deepest emotional yearnings and society's foundational moral needs, perhaps even more so in complex and mobile societies that are increasingly divorced from nurturing family settings and long familiar environments.Sure, Atran doesn't mention Ramachandran and Bloom's "dangerous idea," but it is just one way in which science impedes on territory ordinarily reserved for religion, and inevitably, religion will fight back, as it always does.
From a scientific perspective of the overall structure and design of the physical universe:
1. Human beings are accidental and incidental products of the material development of the universe, almost wholly irrelevant and readily ignored in any general description of its functioning.
Beyond Earth, there is no intelligence Â however alien or like our own Â that is watching out for us or cares. We are alone.
2. Human intelligence and reason, which searches for the hidden traps and causes in our surroundings, evolved and will always remain leashed to our animal passions Â in the struggle for survival, the quest for love, the yearning for social standing and belonging.
This intelligence does not easily suffer loneliness, anymore than it abides the looming prospect of death, whether individual or collective.
Religion is the hope that science is missing (something more in the endeavor to miss nothing).
This one gets a bit weird, and I'm not really sure what to say about it, so I'll just let you read it for yourselves at the link above. Here's how he starts out:
Here's an idea that many academics may find unsettling and dangerous: God exists. And here's another idea that many religious people may find unsettling and dangerous: God is not supernatural, but rather part of the natural order. Simply stating these ideas in the same breath invites them to scrape against each other, and sparks begin to fly. To avoid such conflict, Stephen Jay Gould famously argued that we should separate religion and science, treating them as distinct "magisteria." But science leads many of us to try to understand all that we encounter with a single, grand and glorious overarching framework. In this spirit, let me try to suggest one way in which the idea of a "supreme being" can fit into a scientific worldview.From there, he offers a pretty lengthy illustration. Again, I don't know what to make of it, but if you have something to say about it, feel free to do so in comments.
I offer the following not to advocate the ideas, but rather simply to illustrate one (certainly not the only) way that the concept of God can be approached scientifically.
Daniel C. Dennett:
Dennett begins by telling us that he's saving his most dangerous ideas for a time when we can handle them. Thank you, Dan. After that, he gives us a merely "unsettling" idea:
The human population is still growing, but at nowhere near the rate that the population of memes is growing. There is competition for the limited space in human brains for memes, and something has to give. Thanks to our incessant and often technically brilliant efforts, and our apparently insatiable appetites for novelty, we have created an explosively growing flood of information, in all media, on all topics, in every genre. Now either (1) we will drown in this flood of information, or (2) we won't drown in it. Both alternatives are deeply disturbing. What do I mean by drowning? I mean that we will become psychologically overwhelmed, unable to cope, victimized by the glut and unable to make life-enhancing decisions in the face of an unimaginable surfeit. (I recall the brilliant scene in the film of Evelyn Waugh's dark comedy The Loved One in which embalmer Mr. Joyboy's gluttonous mother is found sprawled on the kitchen floor, helplessly wallowing in the bounty that has spilled from a capsized refrigerator.) We will be lost in the maze, preyed upon by whatever clever forces find ways of pumping moneyÂor simply further memetic replicationsÂout of our situation. (In The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells sees that it might well be our germs, not our high-tech military contraptions, that subdue our alien invaders. Similarly, might our own minds succumb not to the devious manipulations of evil brainwashers and propagandists, but to nothing more than a swarm of irresistible ditties, Noφs nibbled to death by slogans and one-liners?)This is actually something I've wondered about myself (I'm sure Dennett doesn't think he's the first to think of this). In an age when more and more information is thrown at us on a daily basis, how do we process enough of it to make relatively rational decisions? I'm even afraid that it is becoming more common that information overload is used against us, by marketers, politicians, and so on, to make it more difficult for us to make decisions.
If we don't drown, how will we cope? If we somehow learn to swim in the rising tide of the infosphere, that will entail that weÂthat is to say, our grandchildren and their grandchildrenÂbecome very very different from our recent ancestors. What will "we" be like? (Some years ago, Doug Hofstadter wrote a wonderful piece, " In 2093, Just Who Will Be We?" in which he imagines robots being created to have "human" values, robots that gradually take over the social roles of our biological descendants, who become stupider and less concerned with the things we value. If we could secure the welfare of just one of these groups, our children or our brainchildren, which group would we care about the most, with which group would we identify?)
Even in science, this is a growing problem, as we learn so much that scientists themselves are forced to become increasingly specialized in order to keep up with the flow of information. We're forced to lose the forest for the trees, and inevitably scientists will come up with theories that look really good for their particular tree, but which, when looked at from a step or two back, clearly do not fit with the neighboring trees. I know this is already a problem in cognitive science, where modeleres often come up with models focused on one or two particular processes, but have no way of integrating those models with all of the related processes. Thus it's never clear just how useful the models actually are.
The thing that I worry about most that may or may not be true is that perhaps the spontaneous transformation from non-living matter to living matter is extraordinarily unlikely. We know that it has happened once. But what if we gain lots of evidence over the next few decades that it happens very rarely.I can't really figure out how this idea is dangerous. He goes on to say that it could mean we are alone in this galaxy, or even in this universe, but really, isn't that what humans have believed throughout most of their history? At least, haven't humans generally believed that except for the divine beings on Mount Olympus or wherever, humans are alone? So why is this dangerous? Because it would make alien invasion movies more unbelievable?
This is by far the best answer among the cognitive science people, so I'm going to reproduce it in its entirety.
It may not be good to encourage scientists to articulate dangerous ideas.All I can say is, right on! So many of the scientific ideas that are seen as "dangerous" really aren't. Evolution is the obvious one. Unless you believe in a relatively recent, literalist interpretation of one book of the Bible, this really isn't a dangerous idea at all. Then there are the ideas that really are dangerous (see, e.g., Buss' answer above, and anything else he's ever written or said), because there is no evidence for them, but they're offered up anyway. A cynic would believe that people like Buss discuss these ideas because they know that the media will publicize them. I think you all know that I'm a cynic. That's probably why I like Gopnik's answer so much.
Good scientists, almost by definition, tend towards the contrarian and ornery, and nothing gives them more pleasure than holding to an unconventional idea in the face of opposition. Indeed, orneriness and contrarianism are something of currency for science Â nobody wants to have an idea that everyone else has too. Scientists are always constructing a straw man "establishment" opponent who they can then fearlessly demolish. If you combine that with defying the conventional wisdom of non-scientists you have a recipe for a very distinctive kind of scientific smugness and self-righteousness. We scientists see this contrarian habit grinning back at us in a particularly hideous and distorted form when global warming opponents or intelligent design advocates invoke the unpopularity of their ideas as evidence that they should be accepted, or at least discussed.
The problem is exacerbated for public intellectuals. For the media too, would far rather hear about contrarian or unpopular or morally dubious or "controversial" ideas than ones that are congruent with everyday morality and wisdom. No one writes a newspaper article about a study that shows that girls are just as good at some task as boys, or that children are influenced by their parents.
It is certainly true that there is no reason that scientifically valid results should have morally comforting consequences Â but there is no reason why they shouldn't either. Unpopularity or shock is no more a sign of truth than popularity is. More to the point, when scientists do have ideas that are potentially morally dangerous they should approach those ideas with hesitancy and humility. And they should do so in full recognition of the great human tragedy that, as Isiah Berlin pointed out, there can be genuinely conflicting goods and that humans are often in situations of conflict for which there is no simple or obvious answer.
Truth and morality may indeed in some cases be competing values, but that is a tragedy, not a cause for self-congratulation. Humility and empathy come less easily to most scientists, most certainly including me, than pride and self-confidence, but perhaps for that very reason they are the virtues we should pursue.
This is, of course, itself a dangerous idea. Orneriness and contrarianism are in fact, genuine scientific virtues, too. And in the current profoundly anti-scientific political climate it is terribly dangerous to do anything that might give comfort to the enemies of science. But I think the peril to science actually doesn't lie in timidity or self-censorship. It is much more likely to lie in a cacophony of "controversy".
So here's the dangerous new idea. What would it be like if our political chambers were based on the principles of empathizing? It is dangerous because it would mean a revolution in how we choose our politicians, how our political chambers govern, and how our politicians think and behave. We have never given such an alternative political process a chance. Might it be better and safer than what we currently have? Since empathy is about keeping in mind the thoughts and feelings of other people (not just your own), and being sensitive to another person's thoughts and feelings (not just riding rough-shod over them), it is clearly incompatible with notions of "doing battle with the opposition" and "defeating the opposition" in order to win and hold on to power.In other words, under Baron-Cohen's view, what would it be like if women designed our political system? Of course, I'm not quite sure what it means to base an entire political system on the principles of empathizing, any more than I'm sure how one could explain our current political system using the principles of "systematizing," i.e., what men's brains do. But then again, the systematizing-empathizing dichotomy, even with the tiny bit of evidence that might be used to argue for it, is clearly an abstraction that oversimplifies a wide range of observed differences between individuals, so it would be asking too much of it to have it explain current or future political systems, whether they're designed by men, women, or just people in general.
Groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments.I don't really have the stomach to copy and paste any more of Pinker's answer, because he basically uses it as a chance to say what he wants to say about the Summers affair and gender differences in mathematical ability, a topic on which completelyare comletely wrong, because he's not familiar with the actual research. But I agree with him that it is a dangerous idea. It's hard to argue that it's not, given how heated the public debates on these issues are. Of course, part of the debate is about whether the ideas are dangerous because they're true, or are dangerous because they're not true, but "experts" like Pinker (note that Pinker has never done any actual empirical research on gender and math ability, or even in remotely related fields like, say, math ability in general, or cognitive development, or anything outside of psycholinguistics, and thus is hardly an expert) champion them, while the ideas themselves do little more than reinforce stereotyopes?
Richard E. Nisbett:
Do you know why you hired your most recent employee over the runner-up? Do you know why you bought your last pair of pajamas? Do you know what makes you happy and unhappy?I've got to say that I agree with this one, as well. The fact that the vast majority of our thoughts, decision processes, motivations, etc. are unconscious, and unavailable for introspection, not to mention mostly automated, is scary for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it makes us feel like strangers to ourselves. And it is a fact.
Don't be too sure. The most important thing that social psychologists have discovered over the last 50 years is that people are very unreliable informants about why they behaved as they did, made the judgment they did, or liked or disliked something. In short, we don't know nearly as much about what goes on in our heads as we think. In fact, for a shocking range of things, we don't know the answer to "Why did I?" any better than an observer.
We humans can, and do, make up our own purposes, but ultimately the universe has none. All the wonderfully complex, and beautifully designed things we see around us were built by the same purposeless process Â evolution by natural selection. This includes everything from microbes and elephants to skyscrapers and computers, and even our own inner selves.Susan Blackmore, ladies and gentleman, the world's leading evolutionary existentialist.
Marc D. Hauser:
The theory I propose is that human mental life is based on a few simple, abstract, yet expressively powerful rules or computations together with an instructive learning mechanism that prunes the range of possible systems of language, music, mathematics, art, and morality to a limited set of culturally expressed variants. In many ways, this view isn't new or radical. It stems from thinking about the seemingly constrained ways in which relatively open ended or generative systems of expression create both universal structure and limited variation.He goes on from there. But wait a minute, Marc! That's basically the same answer you gave to the question last year. If you're going to give the same empirically unsupported and either logically unsound or trivially true (depending on what, exactly, he means) answer every year, The Edge is going to have to find someone else to take your place on the panel... I hope.
Unfortunately, what appears to be a rather modest proposal on some counts, is dangerous on another. It is dangerous to those who abhor biologically grounded theories on the often misinterpreted perspective that biology determines our fate, derails free will, and erases the soul. But a look at systems other than the human mind makes it transparently clear that the argument from biological endowment does not entail any of these false inferences.
Sperber, who is always interesting, writes that the idea that cutlure is "natural," that it has evolved through natural processes, is a dangerous idea. His answer is very long, and so is this post, so I'll just let you go read it. If you're interested in Sperber's work, or the study of culture in general, you'll probably enjoy it.
So there you have it, the dangerous ideas of the cognitive scientists. There are some clear themes. For example, materialistic approaches to the mind are dangerous, and so are Evolutionary Psychologists, but for entirely different reasons. Despite the fact that this year's question was really dumb, I think the answers are much better than they were last year, overall. I think Gopnik's answer is clearly the best among the cognitive scientists, in part because it puts The Edge and its silly question on blast, but mostly because she's dead on. Some of the people above wouldn't even have careers if it weren't for the media and public's love for "dangerous" ideas. The love of the "dangerous" has become so prevalent that "sexy" ideas with little or no empirical support can get published in some cognitive science and social psychology journals. In addition, that love for "dangerous" science has also led the media and certain uneducated groups of people to treat ideas such as evolution as dangerous, even when they aren't. That means that good scientists, and good scientific ideas, have to struggle to win public relations debates against fear mongerering idiots in order to make sure that science wins out in the classroom and elsewhere. And that's just sad.